Play with a Purpose

Platonic Solids Cartoon

Back in the last century, at the tail end, when we sort of knew the internet was coming but hadn’t really worked out what it was for, strategy board games were all the rage. Players soon identified that the esprit de corps of a team made a sizeable difference to how well they tackled tactical challenges, and in Sweden (whose collective strategic genius once won them an international empire, don’t forget) Goran Ekvall’s thoughts turned to innovation, business creativity – and what conditions made it more or less likely to flourish. Extensive research with teams in settings as diverse as classic offices and steel mills revealed a series of running themes; the support available for ideas to emerge and coalesce, the style of leadership enabling (or disabling) that process and, funnily enough, playfulness.

Brian Cant’s Dialectic

For international readers, or those of a fresher vintage than the authors, Brian Cant (no relation of Immanuel) presented a children’s television programme, along with guests including Jeremy irons in his pre-Pentaverate youth.

P-L-A-Y, P-L-A-Y… it made for a good theme song, at least. But when playfulness is confused for childishness, things get tricky, not least in conversations with Human Resources. So we set out to apply Ekvall’s insights in a way which business could make use of. Surely, we thought, that couldn’t be too much to ask.

We Need a Landscape – Call a Constable!

John Constable, preferably – but more about art therapy anon. Our adaptation of Ekvall’s findings set out to identify the key dimensions of what we call Creative Climate, a quality so closely related to Ludogogy’s founder calls Landscape that we’re not going to argue about it. The nature of the landscape and the clemency of the climate do tend to define the success of a day in the Great Outdoors, so it seems fair to identify as kindred spirits. What we soon found was that Creative Climate could be not only measured, but improved – and when the experience of measurement and change is delivered playfully, it works even better. If you’re curious enough to digest the full logic, there’s even a book about it called Creative Climate Change, but we’re not contributing here just to sell more copies so let’s share a summary to get started with.

What Gets Measured Gets Done – but whodunit?

The assumed consensus these days seems to be that ‘gamification’ is good while ‘gaming the system’ is bad – but maybe it’s the same human trait reflected in subtly different ways. We found that some previous attempts to gauge team culture, such as surveys, had been of limited use due to a tendency to tell visiting consultants what the boss wanted to hear. So we anonymised our scoring process, which immediately removed the ‘who said that?’ distraction while also making room for a bit of constructive competition. Our self-scored tool produces a spider’s web diagram and, when compared to that of an ‘ideal’ or high-performing team, leads to the temptation to show ‘em what we’re made of. In practice, gamesmanship thus introduced itself into the Creative Climate Change model without having to be invited – and we anonymised the team self-scoring process to avoid that become too much of a distraction. But the spider’s web usually proved informative, and once those spinnerets got pumping, the fun could really begin.

Spider diagram

The Eye Of The Spider

Organisational Development folk sometimes talk about the difference between deficits based and strengths-based models of improvement. In helping teams to make sense of their spider’s web outputs, we found neither extreme useful; one gets people’s backs up while the other leads to excessive back-slapping. What does seem to work well is looking at the dimensions as a recipe rather than a list of ingredients – for a team to be successful, it needs to get the mix right.

All the Right Notes, but not Necessarily in the Right Order…

How playfulness interacts with other dimensions is often very instructive. To take a hypothetical case (because it’s rarely quite this simple), a team which scored high on Playfulness but rock bottom on Idea Time and Idea Support could well be frittering much of its time at the office ping-pong table and very rarely producing anything of real value. Yes, play is desirable in and of itself – but to really get something from it which will benefit the bottom line, a structure of positive habits is required. Fortunately, those habits can all become games too.

Surfacing the Submarine

Good ideas are often lurking just below the surface, and ‘idea liberation’ can be promoted quickly through a combination of freedom, risk-talking and playfulness itself. We know of several techniques to promote that, one of the most well-received being – wait for it – a card deck! As devoted music fans we’ve always been drawn to Brian Eno’s ‘Oblique Strategies’ method – if it’s good enough to unblock creativity for David Bowie why shouldn’t we play too? It works remarkably for teams trying to innovate in bureaucratic or highly formal organisational cultures, where the random element of the deck cuts-through staid group-think, as well as generating a little laughter along the way (which is also great for getting creative juices flowing). “Mechanise something idiosyncratic”, for instance, is guaranteed to raise a chortle or two – and might accidentally distil your USP for wider use.

All Time is Relative – Lunchtime, Doubly So

Idea Time is an important dimension in Ekvall’s concept, and therefore in ours too. Much has been made of structural solutions, from Fed-Ex Days for creative tinkering to Lockheed’s skunk works, but where there isn’t yet C-suite permission for such radical methods it’s still possible to get almost as far – by making a game of it. We backed-up Creative Climate Change with a ‘periodic table’ of change techniques, so there are plenty of games to choose from, but one of the most immersive is the full-on role-play experience of Synectics. It certainly involves ample idea Timer, of necessity, but creating a metaphor for a business problem then riffing on themes surfaced by random (or are they?) stimuli is also a lot of fun – and, often to the surprise of PMOverseers and Prince-wallahs, it usually solves thorny problems a whole lot better than any number of Gantt charts could.

Without Visible Means of Support

Idea Support is a term which we have found has to be used with some care; if it looks like there isn’t enough, it can seem a criticism of the team manager. But it really is not just the boss’s responsibility; supporting the introduction of new ideas is a task for the organisation as a whole, and culture may need to evolve for this to happen meaningfully.

By this point, it might not be entirely surprising to learn that games can be part of the answer. But we’ve saved the best for last. In a workplace culture which views fresh ideas with a scepticism bordering upon phobic, laughter is not just desirable –it’s essential. So when Idea Support runs low, amongst the many responses available is the near legendary game of Reversals. The opening phase of this game is a riot of creativity, inviting as it does suggestions as to how we can completely screw-up the reputation, profitability or actual future of the business. You might accidentally write a new episode of The Thick Of It as a result. The second phase takes all the identified destructive factors and turns them on their heads, generating development options so easy to support that only a complete loser would demur. If you haven’t tried it before, you’ll be amazed at how well it works.

Wanna play?

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Scrum Master at SmartBIDI
Zak moved from programmer to scrum master in the IT world, learning along the way that however good the tech is, people still need to play nicely.

The author (with Keith Burnett) of Creative Climate Change, he is currently developing a playful alternative to tired programme management methods and an AI-powered solution to the dull parts of bidding for work – because we’d all rather play than do that.
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Keith is a change management consultant who also happens to be a card-carrying social worker – because until it becomes fun, ‘transformation’ often starts out stressful.

An escaped civil servant, he’s author (with Zak Moore) of Creative Climate Change, and secretly still cites his best ever job as a pre-school play-worker... but don’t tell the Board!
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